Nuclear fusion could be a reality within 20 years after the Government’s green plan gave a major boost to British research projects.
Long considered a pipe dream of low-risk, cheap green energy, Nuclear fusion has become a more serious proposition in recent years, with British scientists in the running to be the first to get there.
Fusion works by merging at extremely high temperatures of the nuclei of atoms to form a heavier element, the same process that takes place in the Sun.
The challenge for scientists on Earth has been to produce more energy than they must put in to create the reaction.
It is not to be confused with nuclear fission, where an atom is split sparking a powerful chain reaction that emits a large amount of energy, which can be utilised if controlled in a nuclear reactor.
Boris Johnson is personally invested in the ‘holy grail’ of fusion, last year declaring British scientists to be “on the verge” of success.
While that may have been an exaggeration, scientists at the Tokamak Energy lab in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, believe they are now just years away, and say investment they expect to see from this week’s announcement could make nuclear fusion a real prospect for helping the UK to reach its net zero goals.
“The real hope is that it will bring forward the date,” said David Kingham, the executive vice chairman of Tokamak Energy.
“Five years ago the widely held view was that fusion was going to take at least until 2050 if not much longer to develop and deploy, and we’re now thinking the development can be done in the next ten years, so that towards 2040 it’s starting to have quite a big impact on reducing carbon emissions.”
Technological leaps from an unassuming business park
For all its science fiction connotations, the reality of nuclear fusion now comes down to projects like Tokamak, based in an unassuming business park next to a large Asda.
While the European Union’s €20bn Iter project, the largest fusion experiment in the world, has made slow progress, private-led British projects have been lighter on their feet, scaling up slowly, and enabling them to change direction when challenges arise.
The hope is to beat projects in the US and Canada, and make the UK a global pioneer in what could become a key technology of a decarbonised world.
The green strategy promised up to £170 million for ‘advanced modular reactors’ – technology used by Tokamak Energy, which hopes it will see a decent portion of the funding it can then leverage for further private investment.
The Government has its own nuclear fusion project, based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which also got a mention in this week’s green strategy, having been the recipient of a £222 million investment.
“Fusion is a transformative tech, which if it has a one in 10 shot is probably worth it,” Giles Wilkes, a former economic adviser to Theresa May, said this week.
In contrast, the green plan was relatively cool on big nuclear, with expected support for Sizewell C failing to emerge, after failed attempts to reach agreement between the prime minister, business secretary and the chancellor.